Christmas is celebrated to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, which Christians believe is the Son of God.
The name ‘Christmas‘ comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A service of mass (sometimes called communion or eucharist) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The service “Mass of Christ” was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before dawn the next day), so people did it at midnight! Thus we get the name of Misa de Cristo, shortened to Christmas.
Christmas is now celebrated by people from all over the world, whether Christians or not. It is a time when family and friends get together and remember the good things they have. People, and especially children, also like Christmas, it’s a time when you give and receive gifts!
The Christmas date
Nobody knows Jesus’ true birthday! The Bible does not give any date, so why celebrate it on December 25? The early Christians certainly had many arguments about when it should be celebrated! In addition, the birth of Jesus probably did not occur in year 1, but a little earlier, somewhere between 2 BCE / BC and 7 BCE / BC, possibly in 4 BCE / BC (there is no 0 – years go by 1 BC / ECB to 1!).
The first recorded Christmas date that was celebrated on December 25 was in 336, during the time of the Roman emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25.
However, there are many different traditions and theories about why Christmas is celebrated on December 25.
A very early Christian tradition said that the day Mary was told she was going to have a very special baby, Jesus (called Annunciation) was March 25, and still today is celebrated on March 25. Nine months after March 25 is December 25! March 25 was also the day when some of the early Christians thought that the world had been created, and also the day Jesus died when he was an adult. The date of March 25 was chosen because people had calculated that this was the day Jesus died as an adult (the 14th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar) and they thought that Jesus was born and had died the same day of the year.
Some people also think that December 25th could also have been chosen because the winter solstice and the ancient Roman pagan midwinter festivals called ‘Saturnalia’ and ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’ took place in December around this date, so that it was a time when people already celebrated things
The winter solstice is the day when there is less time between sunrise and sunset. It happens on December 21 or 22. For the pagans, this meant that winter was over and that spring came and they had a festival to celebrate and they worshiped the sun to overcome the darkness of winter. In Scandinavia, and in some other parts of northern Europe, the winter solstice is known as Yule and that is where we get the Yule records. In Eastern Europe the mid-winter festival is called Koleda.
The Roman Festival of Saturnalia took place between December 17 and 23 and honored the Roman god Saturn. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means “birthday of the sun undefeated” and took place on December 25 (when the Romans thought that the winter solstice had taken place) and was the “birthday” of the pagan god of the Sun, Mithra. In the pagan religion of Mithraism, the holy day was Sunday and that is where we get that word!
The Roman Emperor Aurelian created ‘Sol Invictus’ in 274. But there are records of the first Christians who connected the 14th of Nisan with the 25th of March, so that December 25th dates back to around 200!
The Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, begins on the 25th of Kislev (the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs approximately on the same date as in December). Hanukkah celebrates when the Jewish people could return to dedicate themselves and worship in their Temple, in Jerusalem, after many years of not being able to practice their religion.
Jesus was a Jew, so this could be another reason that helped the early Church choose December 25 for the Christmas date!
The early church also celebrated Christmas on January 6, when they also celebrated the Epiphany (meaning the revelation that Jesus was the son of God) and the Baptism of Jesus. Now Epiphany celebrates mainly the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, but at that time he celebrated both things! The baptism of Jesus was originally seen as more important than his birth, since it was when he began his ministry. But soon people wanted a separate day to celebrate their birth.
Most of the world uses the ‘Gregorian Calendar’ implemented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Before that, the ‘Roman’ or Julian Calendar (named after Julius Caesar) was used. The Gregorian calendar is more accurate than the Roman calendar that had too many days in a year! When the change was made, 10 days were lost, so that the day after October 4, 1582, was October 15, 1582. In the United Kingdom, the calendar was changed in 1752. The day after 2 September 1752 was September 14, 1752.
Many Orthodox and Coptic churches still use the Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which is when December 25 would have been in the Julian calendar). And the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates it on January 6! In some part of the United Kingdom, on January 6 it is still called “Old Christmas”, since this would have been the day when Christmas would have been celebrated, if the calendar had not been changed. Some people did not want to use the new calendar because they thought they ‘cheated’ in 11 days!
Christians believe that Jesus is the light of the world, so the early Christians thought that this was the right time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They also took part in the customs of the winter solstice and gave them Christian meanings, such as Holly, Mistletoe and even Christmas carols.
St. Augustine of Canterbury was the person who probably began the widespread celebration of Christmas in much of England by introducing Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon-led regions in the sixth century (other Celtic parts of Britain were already Christian, but there is no Many documents on whether or how they celebrated the birth of Jesus St. Augustine of Canterbury was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in Rome and that church used the Roman calendar, so Western countries celebrate Christmas on December 25. Then, the people of Great Britain and Western Europe took Christmas on December 25 around the world!
So, when was Jesus born?
There is a solid and practical reason why Jesus was not born in the winter, but in the spring or fall! It can be very cold in the winter and it is unlikely that shepherds have been hiding sheep in the hills (since those hills can be very snowy at times!).
During the spring (in March or April) there is a Jewish festival called “Easter”. This festival remembers when the Jews had escaped slavery in Egypt some 1500 years before Jesus was born. Many lambs would have been needed during the Easter Festival, to be sacrificed in the Temple of Jerusalem. Jews from all over the Roman Empire traveled to Jerusalem for the Easter Festival, so it would have been a good time for the Romans to take a census. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census (Bethlehem is about six miles from Jerusalem).
In the autumn (in September or October) the Jewish festival of ‘Succot’ or ‘The festival of tabernacles’ is celebrated. It is the festival that is most often mentioned in the Bible! It is when the Jews remember that they depended on God for everything they had after they had escaped from Egypt and spent 40 years in the desert. The end of the harvest is also celebrated. During the festival, the Jews live outside in temporary shelters (the word ‘tabernacle’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘cabin’ or ‘cabin’).
Many people who have studied the Bible, think that Sukkot would be a likely time for the birth of Jesus, since it could fit the description that “there is no place in the inn”. It would also have been a good time to conduct the Roman Census, since many Jews went to Jerusalem for the festival and would have brought their own tents / shelters with them! (It would not have been practical for José and María to take their own shelter since María was pregnant).
The possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem seem to point either spring or autumn.
The possible date of Jesus’ birth can also be taken when Zechariah (who was married to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth) was in service in the Jewish Temple as a priest and had an incredible experience. There is an excellent article about the dating of Christmas based on the dates of the experience of Zacarias, in the blog of the theologian Ian Paul. With those dates, you get Jesus born in September, which also fits Sukkot!
The year Jesus was born is not known. The calendar system we have now was created in the 6th century by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus. Actually, he was trying to create a better system for the celebration of Easter, based on a new calendar with the birth of Jesus in year 1. However, he made a mistake in his mathematics and got the possible year of The birth of Jesus is wrong!
Most scholars now think that Jesus was born between 2 BCE / BC and 7 BCE / BC, possibly in 4 BCE / BC. Before the new calendars of Dionysus, the years usually dated from the reigns of the Roman emperors. The new calendar was used more widely from the 8th century when the ‘Venerable Bede of Northumbria’ used it in its ‘new’ history book! There is no ‘0’ year. Bede began dating before year 1 and used 1 ECB / BC as the first year before 1. At that time in Europe, the number 0 did not exist in mathematics; It only arrived in Europe in the 11th to the 13th centuries!
Then, when you celebrate Christmas, remember that you are celebrating a real event that happened about 2000 years ago, that God sent His Son into the world as a Christmas gift for all!
In addition to Christmas and the solstice, there are other festivals that take place at the end of December. Hanukkah is celebrated by the Jews; and the Kwanzaa festival is celebrated by some Africans and African-Americans that takes place from December 26 to January 1.